Birds of North America—now in the final week of an all-too-brief run at Mosaic Theater—soars swiftly and lyrically through a darkening sky, thanks to a pitch-perfect blend of performers, director, and script.
The play, a regional premiere, is about a lot of things, but birdwatching, or “birding,” as it is known today, is not one of them. In fact, according to Serge Seiden (he/his), co-founder of Mosaic Theater and its managing director, this jewel of a play, written by Anna Ouyang Moench, is about human relationships. Specifically, it’s about the maddening relationship of a father and daughter who can only bond over birds.
It’s a bittersweet play, reflecting the passage of time, the loss of hope, and the inability of parent and child to connect. Birding becomes their lingua franca. It’s the only language they share.
(Jane Franklin’s beautifully written review reminds us all to “Seize the day.” The message, on stage and off, is that life’s precious moments are as fleeting as birds in the sky. Miss them, and they are gone.)
After seeing Birds of North America at a recent matinee, I joined Seiden, who directed, and the actors, Regina Aquino (she/hers) and David Bryan Jackson (he/his), to learn about this remarkable production.
Although birds play a mostly metaphorical role in this drama, they are not peripheral. In fact, one of Seiden’s first steps as director was to make sure that the actors knew what birding was about.
To do this, he tracked down Molly Herrmann, a volunteer for the DC Audubon Society and a leading conservationist, who agreed to lead the group on a field trip to the National Arboretum.
“The trip was an eye-opener,” Seiden said. “None of us had really thought about birds before. I realized how rarely we stop to observe the life around us. Learning how different each bird is, in looks as well as song, was like piecing together a puzzle. And Molly was amazing.”
The visit lasted for just an hour, but the group spotted many of the birds identified in the play. Most important, according to Jackson, was that he and Aquino, who play the father and daughter, were able to share the experience. “Birding is the medium through which our characters communicate,” he said. “It’s how they dissolve the tension that keeps getting between them.”
“The irony,” Seiden pointed out, “is that in the play, it’s the father who thinks he’s teaching the daughter. But in the end, it’s she who is leading him.”
The notion that children surpass their parents was no surprise to Jackson, who is a composer and musician as well as an accomplished actor. “It reminds me of my own children, years ago, when I set out to teach them to play the guitar. Within three years, they were ahead of me.”
While Jackson and Aquino had often auditioned together in the past, they had never before performed side by side. “Yet they are hypersensitive to each other,” Seiden said, “and that’s a necessity in a play like this, where the characters constantly react to each other non-verbally.”
The play unfolds over the span of a decade. While the falling leaves symbolize the passage of time, the characters must age too. That demands a full range of physical change.
“For example,” Jackson explained, “in real life, I slouch a lot. So for this role, I stand up straight at the beginning of the play, when my character is full of hope. But then I switch to my normal posture to convey his loss of energy and faith as the years go by.”
“That transformation,” Seiden observed, “is the magic of theater. It’s an art form, but it needs to be internalized to become believable on stage.”
The change is emotional as well as physical. Both characters go from confidence to despair and ultimately acceptance, but it takes incredible speed to “reset.”
“I have 15 seconds in which to wipe away my tears, change my clothing, and restyle my hair,” said Aquino, who credits Kaylin Luces, the assistant stage manager, with performing miracles in helping her to change costumes and hair between scenes.
Asked about the effect of “woke” culture on the production, Aquino was quick to respond. “The change is dramatic. Theater work today is more collaborative. Rehearsals are more humane. There are more women involved.
“Of course,” she added, “a lot is the result of the #MeToo movement. The process feels safer. Boundaries are respected and hierarchy is less frequently imposed.”
Safety is a critical factor for Seiden, who has been directing plays for more than 25 years. “Actors need to feel safe so that they can experiment. It’s not possible to do that in a toxic environment.”
Jackson agreed. “Each role is a learning experience. For example, there is a lot of the father’s character in me. I tend to be very cerebral, but through this role, I’ve learned how to loosen up and be more physical.”
Originally from London, Jackson grew up in the UK as an “army brat,” moving to a different city every few years. He moved to the U.S. about 40 years ago and met the director at Studio Theatre, where he was understudying for a role and Seiden was stage manager.
For Aquino, a Filipina who was born in Maryland, one of the most appealing aspects of the play is the fact that the role she plays is that of an Asian-American who is part of an inter-racial family. “This role is a gift,” she explained, “allowing me to live my own ethnicity on stage.”
It helps that the playwright is Anna Ouyang Moench, an astonishingly gifted writer who is also part of an inter-racial family. (Her parents attended the same production that I did.) Her works for the stage include Mothers, Man of God, and Sin-Eaters. She has also written for television and film and is currently a writer for Severance on Apple TV+.
This is a must-see play. And getting to Mosaic is easy—grab the Metro, hop on the trolley, and you’re there. In the words of DCMTA’s review, Carpe Diem. Seize the day.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Birds of North America plays through November 21, 2021, at Mosaic Theater Company performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, Washington DC. For tickets ($50–$68), call 202.738.9491 or purchase them online.
The show’s program is available here.
All patrons, actors, and staff must comply with Mosaic Theater Company and Atlas Performing Arts Center’s policies and protocols for COVID-19 safety.
Open-captioned and/or ASL performances on Saturday, November 13 at 8 PM (OC) and
Thursday, November 18 at 11 AM (OC + ASL Post Show)
A “Video On Demand” streaming option is available for purchase ($40 individual, $70 group) until December 1, 2021, at mosaictheater.org/birds-of-na. Once you press “play,” you’ll have 72 hours to enjoy the performance. In that time you can pause, rewind, and even watch the show again. Closed captions are available for all video productions.
Birds of North America
Written by Anna Ouyang Moench
Directed by Serge Seiden
Caitlyn: Regina Aquino
John: David Bryan Jackson